The first-person narrator of How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston is an American comedian, writer, and political commentator from Washington, DC. Thurston’s father was killed in a drug trade–related incident when he was five, leaving his mother, Arnita, the single parent of Thurston and his sister, Belinda. Thurston attended the Quaker private school Sidwell Friends, then went on to major in philosophy at Harvard. Although finances were tight for the family while growing up—Thurston could only afford a cable subscription once he graduated college—Thurston had a happy and stable childhood, primarily because of his mother. His progressive political consciousness arose from his mother’s influence, as well as his education at Sidwell and Ankobia, an after-school Afrocentric life skills and cultural program. The name Ankobia, from the Twi language of Ghana, means “those who lead in battle.” One of the most formative events for Thurston at Sidwell was a trip to Senegal in high school. Immersing himself in African culture and visiting the ports from which abducted Africans were forcibly sent to America as part of the slave trade were “humbling” experiences for Thurston, sowing the seeds in him of the need for a pan-African identity. As a comedian and writer, Thurston uses humor to demolish stereotypes about black people and forge a path for the “future of blackness.” Although he has faced subtle racism for much of his life and navigated being a black student in a predominantly white school, a black employee in corporate America, and other such minefields, Thurston states that he is as proud of his American identity as he is of his African ancestry. It is white people who need to understand that owning his African roots and forming bonds with black people does not imply that he is a threat to them.
The mother of Baratunde and Belinda, Arnita was the biggest influence on her children’s life and politics. As an eight-year-old child, Arnita was briefly sent to a “boarding and reform school” for black girls by her strict mother, an experience which traumatized her to an extent. Although her mother wanted Arnita to be an “appropriate,” docile black person who complied with social mores, Arnita grew up to be a questioning woman with a defined political consciousness, participating in the race rights rallies. According to Thurston, although Arnita was more punitive with his older sister, Belinda, perhaps modeling her own harsh upbringing, she relaxed her parenting style by the time Thurston was born in 1977. After Thurston’s father was killed in a “drug war,” Arnita became the sole parent of the household, devoting herself to giving her children a stable upbringing. Thurston notes that disproving the offensive stereotype about black mothers, Arnita was passionate about healthy eating and traveling. Further, Arnita kept her children busy in after-school activities so they would not become involved in the rapidly expanding drug scene in Washington. She also imparted much of her political consciousness and racial pride to her children, ensuring they read up extensively on apartheid, black history, and Africa.
Derrick N. Ashong
Also known as D.N.A, Ashong is a Ghana-born musician who met Thurston at Harvard, where they were both students. Born in Africa and having spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Ashong has experienced interracial relations in various scenarios. Ashong’s perspective is particularly unique in the context of How to Be Black because he speaks about black identity in a context wider than that of North America. Ashong, who is inspired by African cultural traditions and practices, also raises the important point that Africans living in Africa may experience race in a different way than African Americans, who live in a white-dominated culture.
damali ayo, who prefers her name in lowercase, is an American comic, artist, and writer, and the creator of the satirical web art performance piece rent-a-negro.com. The hugely popular site dealt with interactions between black and white people. However, in How to Be Black, damali states that the popularity of the site was accompanied by online racist and gender-based vitriol against her. Thus, she highlights the specific challenges faced by black women performers and artists operating in a public space.
W. Kamau Bell
An American stand-up comedian and radio and television personality, W. Kamau Bell is, among other things, the performer of a one-man comedy show called “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in an Hour.” Although race features as one of the most important topics in Bell’s comedy, Bell states that he avoids jokes on the line of black-versus-white stereotypes, preferring to open more nuanced debates around race. Bell is a staunch critic of the idea of a post-racial America, stating that the very notion was a short-lived moment, one now as historically remote as the Reconstruction era.
An American blogger and businesswoman, Contee also goes by the pseudonym Jill Tubbman, under which she started the blog Jack and Jill Politics. Contee, also an alumnus of the Sidwell Friends High School, was one of the early bloggers writing about black experience. One of the most important aspects of Contee’s politics has been carving out a space distinct from the older generation of black leadership. Contee’s vision of a “second Harlem Renaissance” lends legitimacy to the different experiences and cultural expressions of younger black people.
The only white member of Thurston’s “black” panel, Lander is the Canadian creator of the website Stuff White People Like, which satirizes white culture. Lander believes humor is the key to opening difficult conversations around race and class. However, he is keen to distinguish intelligent satire from hate that garbs itself as humor. One of the most interesting observations Lander makes is that as a white person in North America, he feels left out of more traditional cultures, although he is aware of the privilege whiteness brings.
Szathmari is a comedian and creator of the one-woman web show That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone. One of the most unique aspects of Szathmari’s beliefs is her libertarianism, which some may find at odds with her identity as a black woman. However, Szathmari’s outlook highlights one of the key themes of How to Be Black: that there is no universal way to be black.
Elon James White
White is a comedian, journalist, and media producer associated with some of the most important publications on black culture, such as The Root and the web series This Week in Blackness. He is also a personal friend of Thurston’s. White’s political philosophy is centered around media creation as a means for black people to expand their agency: the more black people become the producers of media, the more diverse black stories can be shared and heard. Although White states that he started out wanting to be a black comic who does not deal with race, he soon came to the realization that his race was always a factor in how audiences perceived him. Since then, White increasingly focuses on ideas of “blackness” in his comedy.
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